Team Comes Together to Repair Thousands of N-95 Masks

Tufts Medical Center needed more than 6,000 masks fixed fast, so Tufts students, staff, and alumni are jumping in, along with MIT and Harvard students, to make it happen
An older N-95 face face mask, and a new one with prototyped parts. Tufts Medical Center needed more than 6,000 masks fixed fast, so Tufts students, staff, and alumni are jumping in, along with MIT and Harvard students, to make it happen
An old mask, at left—and an approved prototype, at right. “Everyone recognizes that this is an opportunity to make a real, measurable difference,” said volunteer James Aronson, E18, EG20. Photo: Molly Lie
March 21, 2020

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When Tufts Medical Center received a donation of 6,095 N95 face masks this week—crucial in these times—it seemed invaluable. But then staff quickly discovered they were old—the elastic bands on the masks were brittle and would break before they could be used.

A Tufts University team volunteering at Tufts Medical Center (Tufts MC) quickly jumped on the case, crowdsourced solutions in the wider Boston academic community, and came together to engineer a prototype to get the damaged elastic out without damaging the masks and provide an alternative way to attach new elastic so that the masks can be used.

Thanks to the fast volunteer mobilization and collaborative problem-solving, groups will begin assembling the masks at Tufts starting on Monday.

How It Came Together

As part of Tufts’ emergency response to COVID-19, members of The Fletcher School’s Military Fellows Program are volunteering logistical support on site at Tufts Medical Center. On Wednesday evening—March 18—Pete Lee, F20, a member of the group, put out the word to his Fletcher colleagues about the problem.

The group brainstormed responses, including reaching out as fast as possible to the Boston academic community for solutions. Volunteer leader Abby Kukura, F21, led a call for engineering expertise from around the area, and by midday Thursday she had identified six MIT graduate students able to develop prototypes for usable masks. That day, Ralia Bouska, F20, another member of the Military Fellows Program, took over as project leader.

Along with Amanda Schwartz, F20, Kukura arranged for Ameerah Siddiqi, F21, to coordinate volunteers to pick up a small batch of masks from the hospital and purchase elastic supplies from local craft stores. “We ended up buying out all the elastic JoAnn Fabrics had,” Kukura said. Then she delivered the supplies to the apartments of engineering students in the local area.

Within several hours, the crowdsourced engineering effort had yielded prototypes from each contributor. Back at Tufts MC, Lee presented nurses with possible approaches to retrofitting the masks that would still preserve their integrity. Meanwhile Schwartz worked with Tufts facilities staff to identify a workspace at the Tufts School of Dental Medicine where School of Engineering volunteers could go on Friday to meet with MIT and Harvard graduate students—they would review and refine the prototypes, work on designs, and order the supplies needed for mass production of the repaired masks.

To make the prototypes, the team turned to the NOLOP Fast Facility, the makerspace at Tufts. Its manager, Brandon Stafford, put out the call to engineering students still in the area who were familiar with the makerspace, and they were soon asking for volunteers to help.

Soon Tufts engineering students and a recent alum were on the job: James Aronson, E18, EG20; Tasia Gladkova, E20; Molly Lie, E20; Jeremy Kanovsky, E21; Elliot Pavlovich, E20; Courtland Priest, E20; and Carter Silvey, E20.

By the end of their time together on Friday, they and graduate students from MIT and Harvard had landed on two final prototypes, and refined them with an eye toward production speed and ability to quickly source materials. They prepared thirty-five masks in each of the two designs and ordered elastics, clips, and other materials to finalize the repair all the remaining masks.

Their work got an appreciative nod from Dr. Michael Apkon, President and CEO of Tufts Medical Center, who came to meet the volunteers and thank them for their efforts.

Starting on Monday morning, some twenty volunteers from The Fletcher School, the Tufts School of Engineering, MIT, and Harvard will begin working—in an assembly-line style—to repair as many of the remaining masks as possible. They anticipate working with 18,000 feet of elastic cord—that’s about 3.4 miles—and 6,000 elastic clips/stoppers.

For the health and safety of the volunteers, the workspace—large enough to ensure room for social distancing—at the dental school will be deep-cleaned and sanitized, thanks to Tufts operations staff. Volunteers will also be provided with personal protective equipment.

“We have stressed to the students the importance of monitoring their own health and notifying us immediately if they develop any symptoms,” said Schwartz. “We have also asked the volunteers to contribute as their academic commitments permit, making sure to prioritize their classes.” Tufts University School of Dental Medicine is providing lunches for the volunteers.

In addition to repairing the masks, the volunteers are developing written protocols for their efforts, to track and codify all the steps to ensure that they are following all safety and health protocols. They have the goal of documenting what they are doing, what tools they are using, and the sources of their materials to help others implement this elsewhere.

Fletcher School Dean Rachel Kyte lauded the contributions from the Fletcher community. “Our military fellows have deployed strategic support to decision making, problem solving, and communications across Tufts crisis response, as well as manage student volunteers. Solving interconnected, complex problems is what we train for at Fletcher,” she said. “We are proud of their contribution now and in the period to come.”

“Everyone recognizes that this is an opportunity to make a real, measurable difference. We each have unique skills and our own effort that we can contribute. Together, we have the ability to make a material difference,” said Aronson, one of the volunteers. “Just in our group, we have undergraduates and graduates from Tufts, MIT, and Harvard, assistance from Tufts dental school and the university’s emergency operations center, and invaluable coordination from the Tufts Military Fellows. Both at Tufts and as part of our larger community, we all need to come together to face the challenges presented by COVID-19.”

MIT mechanical engineering graduate student Levi DeLuke noted that the team quickly developed a spreadsheet as the work on the masks progressed, “adding new steps to the assembly process, sourcing materials, and timing the first practice runs of masks,” he said. “Hopefully other groups can use the information as a starting point on their own projects.”

Update: The volunteer team's instructions for repairing KC N95 masks and details on the materials they used can be found here